Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"You must move forward."

One of the lovely things about vacation is that I can catch up on my reading. I have been slowly working my way through Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin, and, as it is a book that deserves to have time taken with it, it's been slow going. But I lost myself in it the first two days of vacation.
I re-emerged slowly, stunned, dazzled.

While Philippe Petit's walk on a cable strung between the two towers of the World trade Center is the thread running through the book, it is balanced perfectly, like Petit, with the intertwining stories of half a dozen inhabitants of New York City on that hot, muggy day in August 1974.

Additionally, this novel is a love song to New York, and in a strange, roundabout way, a love song to the Towers. McCann writes a postscript about his father-in-law's trip down 57 flights to escape the south tower on September 11, 2001, and this, juxtaposed after the dreamy novel detailing Petit's incredible act of beauty and the ordinary lives touched however delicately by it, choked me up.

"Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change."

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

dancing with the stars...

Despite photographic evidence to the contrary, my dad was light on his feet. He danced like a dream. It seems he could make anyone look good - when he and my mother danced together, they moved as one - but it was my dad you watched. His long-limbed grace, his poise, the delight shining on his face, his goofy ear-to-ear grin; he made dancing look like something everyone should do, all the time.

It wasn’t until you tried it that you realized how easy he made it look.
When I was very little, I stood on his feet and he swung me around, pretty much carrying me through the steps. But as I got older, he taught me to waltz, and to polka, and to jitterbug. He taught me to stand up straight and move from my hips, and to let the music tell my feet what to do when, and he taught me the sheer joy of dancing with a partner. A touch of the hand on my back, a slight pressure on my waist, or a grasp of my fingers, and the rest of my body, and especially my feet, knew where to go and what to do, in sync with his rhythm. It was magical – it might very well have been magic.

He had a way of shuffling his feet, knees bent, that made him look like he was flowing water, or maybe just gracefully boneless – I saw him move with the same fluidity and grace when he played basketball with me in the driveway.

As a fundamentalist Baptist, I was not permitted to dance in high school. Not for us the slow dancing of prom. My favorite joke for a long time was, “Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?” The answer, of course, is “Because people will think they are dancing.”

But in my young and wild single days, a friend and I frequented an Irish bar where, every Tuesday evening, people gathered to ceili dance. Ceili is the folk dance of Ireland, and it resembles clogging, or square dancing, or even Highland dancing. Step dancing, the stiff, intricate footwork associated with Michael Flatley and girls in curls and green velvet, is the next step up – you have to know how to do it to do it right. But ceili is a group effort, perfectly suited to beginners; you leap in, usually with a partner, and if you let the old people who know what they’re doing push you around to your proper spot, you pick it up quickly and then it’s a whiz. The music is infectious and you can’t help but move – I find that I assume there’s something seriously wrong with people who can listen to a fiddler play a reel and not move their feet. It’s all I can do to stop myself from dancing, you know, when everyone else is sitting at the table, demurely sipping beer. It’s also very good exercise; I developed calves of steel and remarkable lung capacity.

My second foray into rhythm was when I signed myself up for a zumba class at the gym about a year ago. Zumba is a fusion of Latin dance and hiphop coolness, all disguised as exercise. I am no Britney Spears, it’s true, but I find that if I just lose myself in the thrumming beat and don’t watch myself in the mirror, I don’t feel nearly as awkward as I am sure I look. Sometimes I fantasize about breaking out my moves at some wedding with an insanely cool DJ who has no aversion to playing profanity-laced, innuendo-laden, bass-heavy dance music.

But I learned long ago to leave the wedding reception before the bride’s dance with her father. I didn’t dance with my dad at my wedding – he had been dead for close to eight years by then. My older brother gave me away, filling in my father’s traditional role perfectly fine, but I couldn’t dance with someone else, for the dance that was supposed to be his. And watching another happy bride dance with her dad, however awkward, makes me ache for my dad. Makes me wish ferociously that he had danced with me at my wedding.

My father-in-law dances well enough, he knows the steps; probably a generational thing. But his dancing is studied, and full of effort. You get the impression that he’s talking to himself in his head as he spins and twirls and guides my mother-in-law. My father’s dancing was effortless.
He was in his element.
He looked dancing like I feel swimming.

Recently I was out to dinner with friends. We sat outside at a tapas bar, and an older gentleman played soft, slow Brazilian jazz. The owner of the restaurant, a tall, slim man with a Brooklyn accent I couldn’t quite believe was real, danced with his wife on the little brick patio, and his loose, light stepping made my throat tighten. He danced like my dad. Controlled but free, fluid and graceful and lithe...I longed to ask him to dance with me. He may very well have, but I was more afraid that were we to dance, I would lay my head on his shoulder and weep.

Monday, September 20, 2010

the elusive mazurka bar

I just finished The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Ryan Hendricks. Wynter Morrison makes a return, and now she's co-owner of the Queen Street Bakery, still mixing up delicious-sounding loaves.

Into the mix this time around is thrown a disappearing boyfriend, a mysterious and annoying cake decorator, a bereft apprentice, a foot-dragging ex-husband, and a lovelorn landlord.

The story skips and jumps around a bit, and there are characters I would love to read about in spin-off novels. But the real star, as before, is the bakery. At least for me.

And this time round I was determined to bake a Mazurka bar, the cookie Ellen, the bakery's original owner, is famous for. Turns out the recipe is elusive; according to the blogs and reviews I found, even Hendricks doesn't have one.

So I intend to have a good time trying...I started with this one: from, and while it doesn't feature the light, flaky pastry mentioned in the book, it is indeed delicious, especially warmed, with a scoop or two of vanilla ice cream. The apricots cut the sweetness of the crust just the perfect little amount, and I shamelessly scrape the almost caramelized bits of butter off the bottom of the pan and pop them into my mouth when no one else is in the kitchen.

However, this one also tantalizes: from Yulinka Cooks. Although there's no oatmeal, and I am pretty sure the mazurka bars in Bread Alone contained oatmeal, I am willing to try them. I am a sucker for dried fruit and nuts.

This recipe, from Feathered Nest, is more similar to the first than the second, but the fruit is fresh and goes on top of the crust rather than between. I have a bowlful of prune plums that might be put to work in this recipe someday soon.

I am still Googling and searching my stash of cookbooks and cooking magazines, to round up more contestants. Anyone want to come help me taste test?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

There is no proof, Septimus. The thing that is perfectly obvious is that the note in the margin was a joke to make you all mad.

I am almost done The Baker's Apprentice. It was exactly as I expected. And now I am about to embark on a quest for the Mazurka bar, which the bakery in the novel sells.

Let the Great World Spin is beautifully, carefully written. It is a book with which one must take one's time.

Just started Deliverance this afternoon, and broke out my pretty Persephone Press edition of Cheerful Weather for the Wedding.

But in the meantime, I am rereading Tom Stoppard's brilliant play, Arcadia.
This man will always be Septimus Hodge to me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

soapbox post

This annoys the everliving shit out of me.

I was going to write a whole diatribe about why Americans think everything needs to be Americanized, and why the general zeitgeist seems to be that anything remotely European is too foreign and hard for us to cope with, but I am too tired.

I read Let the Right One IN THE ORIGINAL SWEDISH -- well, no, no, I didn't, but I read it ages ago. In the original translation, with the original title, because someone who had seen the original movie raved about it. I liked it well enough. It was a good read.

I will ignore this ridiculous Americanized media tie-in edition, as well as the stupid American remake of the movie.

Just as I will ignore the American remake of the film of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Guess what, America? It's OK to NOT be American. Seriously. The rest of the world has lots to offer, some of it even better than what we have here.


Sunday, September 12, 2010

Everything is never as it seems...

Books I bought today:

The Baker's Apprentice - Judith Ryan Hendricks. I read Bread Alone because I picked it up off a shelf of a vacation rental a couple years ago. I really enjoyed it. It was comfort reading - full of delicious food and you knew it was going to end happily. I didn't know there was a sequel till I stumbled over it today at the bookstore, where I'd gone with Primo to buy the new 39 Clues book, and for Seg, yet another complete sticker book of something Star Wars. Seg offered to give me his saved up money for part of his book, but considering he helped me sort and put away 6 baskets of laundry this morning, quite cheerfully, I got it for him. I like to do little things like that for my Seg; he is such a kind and generous soul himself.

Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel. Can't wait to start this one.

I came home with a hankering to finally read Let the Great World Spin, which I bought ages ago, so dug it up and found my copy of Master and Commander in the process, so both are now sitting on my nightstand.

And I am moving through my pile of Persephone Press books; it's the weather, I crave pleasant domestic novels.


Just finished Sara Gruen's The Ape House. While I read it straight through in two nights, I won't say it was an especially great book. There are characters I liked, a few I didn't get At. All., and I don't really care about bonobos. As Katya said, "[It's] not that I want anything to happen to them, [I'm] not interested in reading about them." Precisely. But despite all this equivocation, I am glad I read it. I scored it at the library on the New Books display, so that was a bonus, too.


Why can I have a book in my house for months or sometimes even years before I am hit with the burning desire to read it RIGHT NOW? See above, Let the Great World Spin. I like to go bookshopping on my own shelves. The price is right.